Dungeons of the Abyss and the Unchosen Heroes
Ever so gradually, the dark sky lit up as the sun rose from the horizon, the blue obscuring the lights of the stars as it expanded across the sky. Sitting on the fence, a boy, soon to be of age, viewed the dawn with disinterest. He had already seen plenty of sunrises and sunsets, each one slightly different from the other, yet not different enough to get a rise of excitement out of him. The only reason he was starring at it in the first place was that there was simply nothing else around, nothing other than the herd of cows he was charged with and they were hard to miss.
Every morning, before the light of dawn, the boy would lead the cows into the fenced-in pasture, allowing them to move about and graze on the grass, fresh with morning dew. It was dull work, hardly exciting or fulfilling, not for the boy, at least.
In the distance, a forest was in view. Time and time again, he was warned not to go near it and he never did. Of course, being a child of his age, he was curious, but no matter how bored he became, he never did have the courage to go explore. It was probably for the best. The forest was said to be rather dangerous for a child like him.
"Today's the day..."
Soon, the boy would have to make a trip to the town of Lars, to the temple of Ceratias, Goddess of Fate and Guidance. It was a tradition of the region, a coming of age ceremony of a sort. As such, it was somewhat of an important day.
On such a day, the boy had hoped to be sent off by an important friend, or at the very least, receive some kind of well-wishing from her beforehand. Sadly, that did not seem possible as she had gone out on a hunt with her father and won't be returning anytime soon.
After herding the cows back into the barn, the boy got ready, putting on his cleanest clothes as he readied to head out. From his village, he'll be walking to town. It'll take about an hour and a half, rather close by for the standards of the day.
Before leaving the house, his family threw together a breakfast as grand as they could make it, lining the table with soft, freshly baked bread alongside butter mixed with fragrant herbs. Being told that he'll need the strength, the boy ate as much as he could and watered it all down with a hot mug of milk, fresh from the barn.
As the boy set out, he turned to see his village, the small village he had been raised in, the small village that he had lived all thirteen years of his life thus far. This would be the first time that he'll be leaving it and a small amount of fear gripped his heart.
A voice called out to the boy and a small figure could be seen running along the road leading out of the village. It was a young girl, older than the boy for about two years. Her hair was of a light brown shade, reminiscent of a field of wheat, and they bounced up and down as she ran.
"Lena? Back already?" asked the boy, eyes filled with surprise, when the girl arrived before him.
"We..." The girl was panting. "We wrapped it up earlier than usual."
"So you can see me off?"
"You didn't have to, you know. This isn't all that big of a deal," said the boy, pretending to be indifferent.
"Oh?" The girl gained some composure after regaining her breath and immediately, she flashed a mischievous grin. "Then maybe I don't have to give you this present I prepared either."
"You have a present? For me?"
It wasn't part of the tradition to give out presents on such an occasion. However, the girl's family wasn't originally from around here and had apparently come from outside of the Vestal Coalition, so perhaps they have a different custom.
"That's right, I went through the trouble of preparing it for you," the girl said teasingly. "Do you want it or not?"
"I... I do," said the boy, his face flushed red.
The girl smiled, and having gotten the reaction she wanted, she handed her present to the boy. It was a hunting knife with a sculpted hilt. The sculpting was amateurish, but plenty of attention had been given to it.
"The roads around here are pretty safe, but just in case, you know."
"Thanks," said the boy, still blushing as he tucked the knife into his belt.
"Well then, I best be going. Good luck on your trip and try not to get lost, okay. Remember, you just have to go straight down this road and head for the biggest building in the town."
"I'll be fine." The boy pouted. "I can remember that much at least."
"That's good to know, but I had to check."
"Well, you don't have to."
"Then I guess I'll see you later then."
"Yeah, I guess."
That might have been the last time those two have a conversation in such a manner, with such lightheartedness and without a care in the world. How quickly things could change, how swiftly can the things one took for granted be taken away without so much as a warning.
Auguste opened his eyes to the birds chirping. His body felt pleasantly light and strangely enough, his head did not throb with pain. Judging at the light filtering through his tent, he realized that the sun had risen a long time ago. It has been a while since the last time he woke up so late into the day.
He sat up from the fur pelt that he made his bedding and gathered himself. After a moment or two, he crawled out of the tent.
"Good morning, did you sleep well?" Elaine was the first to greet him.
"I did. I can't remember the last time I had such a good night's sleep. Though, I did have a dream."
"What kind of dream?"
That was a lie. He remembered it all too perfectly. Perhaps it was because it had been so similar to what he remembered of back then. In fact, it had been more like a memory than a dream.
"Was it about home, I wonder."
"What makes you say that?"
"Well, we're getting close to Lars, aren't we? You lived in a village close by, right?"
"Did I hit the nail on the head by any chance?"
"I'm not homesick, just so you know."
"Even if you're not, we're not in that much of a hurry. Would you like to pay a visit when we pass by?"
"I'll think about it. Where are the others?"
"Morgan and Henri had the last shift of nightwatch and went back to sleep after breakfast. As for Finn and Gladiolus, those two went fishing for lunch."
"We're spending the day awfully leisurely aren't we?"
"It's not as if we're in a big hurry. We ought to take it easy once in a while, right?"
"I don't know. It feels like we'll become lax if we take it easy for too long."
"I don't think it's too much to worry about. Even Gladiolus said that it's fine, right?"
"Maybe you're right. Maybe I'm the one being too tense."
"Maybe. Either way, come have some breakfast. Some of our foodstuffs are going to go bad soon so feel free to eat as much as you like."
Thanks to the payment in advance from Albert for the job regarding the hi-catalyst, in the foreseeable future, there was no need to worry when it came to food and supplies. Before this, even if some of the food was going bad, they would still try to ration them for as long as they can. At this moment in time, however, Auguste felt as if they were living like kings, though it was probably closer to well-to-do merchants.
Currently, the Henrietta Company is heading westward, towards the Verdant Trails from where they would travel into the territories of the Theocracy of Arithmi. In their path, there happened to be the town of Lars where they had planned to stop by to resupply.
By the time Finn and Gladiolus had returned from the nearby stream, Henrietta and Morganna were already awake, just in time for lunch. Unfortunately, however, there was no fish. Finn and Gladiolus weren't able to catch anything, and so lunch was simply bread and some butter, which was luxury still as far as this party was concerned.
Once they finished lunch, they packed up their things and continued onwards, arriving in the town of Lars a little before sunset. While normally, the party would have just made camp outside of town, this time, they opted to rent rooms at an inn. It has been a while, a long while, since any of them had slept on a proper bed.
"All these luxuries are making me nervous," said Auguste while sitting on the tavern table, a variety of food spread out before him.
"We have the money, so I don't see why not," said Henrietta, who stopped stuffing her mouth for a moment to speak.
"I don't mind if it's just a bit, but we better not get used to it," said Elaine. "This will have to be the last time we splurge like this.
"Come on, we can enjoy ourselves a little more, can't we?" Henrietta expressed her objection.
"If you want you can, but do it with your own money. From now on, the party's shared assets will only go to what's necessary."
"Oi, who made yer the boss!?"
"I agree with Elaine, actually," said Gladiolus.
"I second that motion," Auguste added.
Being outvoted, Henrietta looked towards Finn and Morganna for help. However, Finn was too occupied with the food the pay attention and Morganna had a look that seemed to say that she's fine with whichever.
And so, it was decided that as soon as they leave Lars, they'll be having a tighter strap over their coin pouches, so to speak. Fortunately for Henrietta, Auguste had decided that he was going to take a day or two off to visit his home, and as such, they'll be staying in Lars just for a bit longer.
The next day, Auguste headed off, not towards home, not yet, but towards the temple. The truth was that Auguste never told his family that he went off dungeoneering. Instead, they were all led to believe that Auguste was a priest in training and that he had been sent all over the five kingdoms on some kind of pilgrimage. Before he visits his home, he has to first fetch his robes which were kept in the temple.
With a basket of fruits he bought from the market early in the morning, Auguste climbed the stairs leading up to the temple of Ceratias, built on a higher foundation than any other buildings within the town. Each step was sculpted from white marble, as were the slabs that made up the floors of the temple itself. Towering pillars of pure white held the roof over the temple, and on each one, sculptures retelling myths and legends regarding those who performed great deeds were carved into them with exquisite details.
As the temple was a sacred place, peace and silence were to be maintained, and as such, each step Auguste took on the cold marble floor echoed throughout the great halls. Step by step, as if entranced by these echoes, Auguste kept on walking and walking and walking, till he reached an unknown part of the temple, where not a single soul could be seen. There were only Auguste, a great hallway that seemed to go on forever, and a massive marble gate.
With a slight tremor, the doors of the gate slowly swung open, revealing a chamber of white, empty aside from a velvet couch set in the middle. On the couch, a woman with an otherworldly air about her was seated. Her white robes blended her into the rest of the room and her white shroud hid her jet-black hair. Her body laid limply against the couch and her eyes were tilted towards the ground, opened yet unfocused. It was only when Auguste took a step into the chamber did light return to her eyes as they turned towards the visitor of this sanctuary, revealing their golden brilliance to him.
Seeing his own figure reflected in the woman's golden eyes, Auguste's lips curled upwards.
"I've returned, Cera."
End of Chapter 19